Parties, databases and campaigning in 2016

With just days to go, the 2016 election seems to be a very close race with opinion polls showing the parties to be neck-and-neck. In such a close battle, the success of the parties’ marginal seat campaigns will be critical to deciding the next government of Australia.

Marginal seats are those held by less than 5%. Winning these seats is often the result of the efforts parties and candidates have made on the years preceding the election, not just during the campaign.

Recently, the payment of software used by the Liberal Party in the offices of its parliamentarians has garnered much interest. The company, Parakeelia, is the owner of the database software the Liberal Party uses to keep information on constituents. It has been revealed that the company is owned by, and makes significant donations to, the Liberal Party.

While this highlights potential issues in political fundraising, it also reminds us of the significant advantage major parties have in terms of keeping information on their constituents which can be used to mount effective marginal seat campaigns.

The Liberal Party’s software is called Feedback and Labor’s is Electrac. Both are powerful tools that provide parliamentarians, and major party candidates, with information about individual voters in their electorate.

The base information about voters is provided through the electoral roll and provides details such as names and addresses.

Parties then build on this by entering data on individuals by gathering information through surveys, correspondence and face-to-face meetings with voters. Parties can do this as they are exempt from privacy laws.

Indeed, candidates and party staffers are urged to collect as much information as they can whenever they have any dealings with constituents.

For example, if during a phone conversation a staffer hears a baby crying on the other end of the phone, they can flag the voter as having an interest in family benefits or early childcare. Hearing the voter’s dog barking suggests they will have an interest in animal rights and should be flagged as such.

More than that, these systems can also be used to tag constituents as either a supporter or opponent of particular parties. Being tagged as an undecided voter will ensure the individual receives as much information as possible from the parliamentarian.

These fragments of information can then be used by candidates and parties to craft correspondence that is directly relevant to individual voters. Parties clearly believe that, rather than send direct mail that is generic, talking about specific issues that are important to voters is a better way to win electoral support.

While these systems are legal and have been used since the prevalence of computers, questions can be raised about the role of the state in ultimately assisting the major parties.

These databases undoubtedly assist parliamentarians in collecting the views of constituents and also serve as a useful contact list. But the power and scope of these systems also give incumbents a significant advantage.

The Parakeelia affair has reignited debates about the use of these databases but it’s unlikely to influence their prevalence and use by parties in modern campaigns.

Zareh Ghazarian is a Lecturer at Monash Univeristy